How a Black marching band style was erased from Gainesville’s fields, and why it matters decades later

GAINESVILLE, FL – “Changed,” Alonzo Young says, surveying the cafeteria of the high school he graduated from in 1973.

Young was there when the school was founded. He remembers both the pain and the pride in its history.

The school, Eastside, is surrounded by the historically Black neighborhoods of east Gainesville. The people trickling in are decked out in orange, “Richard E. Parker Alumni Band” stretching around a green ram on their shirt fronts. Their laughs echo off the tables and old nicknames roll off their tongues.

Young’s foot begins to jiggle against the floor. He’s skeptical. He doesn’t know how the current students, who are packing into the auditorium for the school’s Black History Month celebration this February afternoon, will receive them. The alumni band performs in a style the school dropped decades ago, with strong ties to Black culture.

“All right y’all, right quick, let’s go over ‘Rags!’” calls out Cathy Norman, Class of ‘83 and the alumni band’s founder.

Instrument cases clack open and C notes start to swell. They don’t make up a full marching band but they sketch the outline of one: a smattering of brass and woodwind instruments, three drummers, a majorette, two color guard members and a drum major. The 17 alumni span two decades of Eastside graduating classes.

They stumble a bit through their first runs of the funk classic “Rags to Rufus” and the school’s fight song “Ram Jam,” penned by Eastside’s first band director Richard Parker. Their knees don’t lift as high as they once did.

But eyes are twinkling, hips start swinging and by the time drum major Rodney Samuel signals the drumline to break it down, the magic is back: the joy and swag that used to pack Gainesville into the bleachers every Friday night. Cafeteria staff stop in the doorway to listen.

Samuel blows his whistle and holds up his baton, or “Cadillac,” to call the band to a stop. In 1980, he had to exaggerate his movements so the whole band could see; the crowd’s cheers drowned out his whistle.

“Anything else you want to practice?” Norman asks.

“Save the lip!” the horn players cry.

The band files out to the auditorium. Young hears the buzz of students inside. He wonders: Do they know who we are?

The marching band used to reflect the school’s majority Black population and the surrounding neighborhoods. It was the pride of Black and white students alike; they participated in equal numbers. But today, very few Black students play instruments in the band.

It’s not just his trumpet that Young wants to march into the auditorium. He wants to march in history a story of community identity and loss so profound that decades later, some are still asking if what was taken can be returned.

It’s a story about desegregation, the lingering consequences of old decisions, and who pays the price for unity.

The auditorium goes dark. The stage lights turn on.

Samuel blows his whistle.

Opening the band room door

In 1970, Gainesville was in an uproar: riots and fighting, bomb threats, protest marches in the streets. The federal government was finally enforcing desegregation, effective immediately. The Alachua County School Board couldn’t drag its feet any longer.

It did what most places across the country did — closed the Black school, Lincoln High, and forced those students to bus to white schools and two newly opened integrated schools: Buchholz High on the west side, and Eastside High.

Alonzo Young, then 14, was devastated. Lincoln wasn’t just a school. It was a community. The teachers were neighbors and family friends, and probably overqualified — people who may have gone on to be doctors and lawyers had they not been barred by a racist system.

At Lincoln, students and teachers knew they were valued. The school was theirs.

Then it wasn’t. When Young got back from winter break, Lincoln’s Big Red Terriers didn’t exist anymore.

John Dukes III was one of the first Black children to attend a white school in Gainesville, before desegregation. His father John Dukes Jr., shown in the portrait, served as the last principal of Lincoln and the first of Eastside High.(Photo by Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Students and teachers were scattershot to new assignments — some across 13th Street, which had long divided Gainesville between where it was safe for Black people to exist and where it wasn’t.

All of this was brewing in Young as he walked the campus of Howard Bishop Middle, where they had temporarily sent the new Eastside students while the school finished construction.

A sound caught Young’s ear — some instrument playing. He slowed. Then he made a decision that changed his life: He opened the band room door.

A man inside the room asked him what he would like to do.

Well, what are you doing? Young asked.

The man said he was the band director, and asked if Young would like to play an instrument.

Young considered. He had always loved Louis Armstrong.

Yes, I would love to play the trumpet.

I can teach you, the man said.

The man was Richard E. Parker. He had been tasked with starting one of the county’s first integrated marching bands. Unity, identity, and spirit — all things the new school desperately needed — were what marching bands did best.

For Eastside to succeed, its marching band would need to succeed.

Parker’s wife, Mildred, said Parker approached this task like he did everything else: with confidence.

The school board had closed a white school, too, Buchholz. Buchholz was allowed to transfer its name to the newly built integrated school. Lincoln wasn’t. Eastside was forced to develop a new identity from scratch.

John Dukes III, the son of Eastside’s first principal, believes this was purposeful.

“You got folks that are trying to literally erase the culture of Lincoln in order to send its students off into the world,” Dukes said. “If you look around the world, wherever people come in and they want to take somebody else’s property, and they want to make somebody’s continent their own? You can’t do that if you have a cohesive culture on that continent. You have to find ways to either kill the culture, or divide the culture.”

Alonzo Young (center) marches with the Eastside band in the University of Florida homecoming parade in the early ’70s. (Courtesy of Alonzo Young)

If they couldn’t go back to Lincoln’s colors of red and white, then orange and green — those of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University — seemed the next best option. Many of the new administration at Eastside, including Parker himself, were graduates of the historically Black university with a legendary marching band.

Parker’s band would soon become known across the state as “Little FAMU,” but they had work to do first.

The rise of ‘Little FAMU’

At Eastside, Parker had more instruments and resources than he ever had at A.L. Mebane, another school formerly for Black students. But that didn’t mean he had more talent.

Their lines are like snakes, he joked with his family.

But Parker was determined that at the first football game of 1970, Eastside would have a marching band. And they did. That game and every game after, Parker’s band would bring out brand new music and choreography, an astonishing feat.

They could do classical music on a dime, but Parker wanted them to play the latest radio hits, too: Wild Cherry and Aretha Franklin. Later: Michael Jackson, Dianna Ross, Boogie Nights. He’d buy 45s and have his daughter operate the record player, starting and stopping the needle while he furiously transcribed the song for each instrument in the band.

Richard Parker leads the band down University Avenue for the 1982 homecoming parade, their colors paying homage to the historically Black Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Norman)

Their style mimicked that of Florida A&M and other historically Black colleges and universities. It was physically demanding: knees high-stepping at 90-degree angles, horns swinging with every step. At every performance, they were guaranteed to break it down, set their instruments in the grass and dance. At a time when most schools were transitioning to the corps style of marching — glide steps and stiff movements — Eastside’s marching band stuck out.

Parker knew that to carry that distinction off, they had to do it perfectly. One more time, he’d shout, until the students had to run, cases swinging, to catch the buses that were pulling away without them.

If the choreography wasn’t perfect, Parker threatened that the band would not perform that Friday, something that was quickly becoming impossible. Parker’s daughter, Glenda Davis, remembers all of Citizens Field packed on both sides to see the band perform. Nobody moved at halftime to get popcorn or use the restroom. Black, white, east side, west side, everyone came to see “Little FAMU.” They couldn’t let Gainesville down.

Sometimes they’d practice long after the sun went down, over and over, until every move was perfect. Parents would park their cars around the field and turn their headlights on so the band could see, the air so dusty from their marching it earned the nickname “The Dust Bowl.”

The band was a community effort, everyone pitching in to raise funds and drive students.

And there was Parker, quietly buying students lunch when they didn’t have any and giving rides home. He intervened when students were in trouble in the principal’s office and spent hours going over math problems when a student risked failing.

Parker was especially persistent with the kids who seemed to be in trouble.

If you’re not going to be in band, he’d ask, what are you going to do with your life? Have you changed your mind yet?

Parker believed every student could participate in band. If they couldn’t read music, he taught them to play by ear, grabbed their drum and showed them how to beat the rhythm.

Many of Parker’s students came from single-parent homes. Alumni call him a father figure. The band was so much more than a band.

Richard Parker’s wife, Mildred, and daughter, Glenda, sit beneath a wall of his accomplishments in Mildred’s living room. (Photo by Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

His wife, Mildred, said she was often upset that he wasn’t with his family more, “but that upset didn’t last long,” because she knew what he was doing and why.

“He belonged to the community and not just to us,” she said.

The community pride once housed at Lincoln now beamed in every swinging step of Parker’s band.

Only this time, there were white students, too. Young remembers Black and white band members teaching each other their respective dance moves and music. It was hard not to become friends when you were doing something so exciting, so demanding, for so many hours of your day.

Many alumni said integration worked at Eastside because of Parker’s band. Band demanded they move in unison and create one sound. Eastside became proud of their shared identity, the way everyone cheered when they took the field.

Other schools might have had better football teams and fancier cars in the parking lot, but Dukes said Eastside came to the field “knowing that halftime belongs to us, period.”

When they marched in the University of Florida’s homecoming parade, people followed behind, copying their steps. Fans gathered at Main Street and University Avenue, where they knew Parker’s band was guaranteed to break it down. The crowd engulfed them, pressing in to dance with them until they could no longer see Parker on the sidelines.

“It was something cultural that the east side of Gainesville had,” Young said. “This is us. We have something. Since Lincoln is gone now, we got Eastside. We got a Black band director that could play modern music and bring us together.”

Many alumni of Parker’s band earned scholarships to march in the bands of historically Black colleges and universities like Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman. They returned to teach the latest dances and drills to Parker’s new students, who would later go onto those colleges themselves. The band became a pipeline to opportunity.

Marching bands have deep roots in African American history, trailing back to the Revolutionary War. Black people were not allowed to carry weapons, but they could carry instruments in fife and drum corps. They returned home with a new musical expression of shared identity and pride.

Marching bands later became tools of protest. During Jim Crow, they allowed large groups of Black people to gather. With loud music and colorful uniforms, they didn’t just take up space. They demanded attention.

Eastside was demanding attention, too, by marching in a style that was quickly disappearing from predominantly white institutions.

Soon, that difference would pose a problem.

Rodney Samuel, Class of ’81, strikes a classic drum major pose. On his mantel, he keeps his old band portrait and a photo from Richard Parker’s funeral in 2016. (Photo by Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

‘This is not our band’

By the early ‘80s, white families had increasingly moved farther west, and Eastside was beginning to look like Lincoln again. The school was in danger of no longer meeting the federal desegregation mandate. An International Baccalaureate (IB) program, school administration hoped, would lure high-achieving non-Black students from the west side of town.

In 1983, Eastside hired its first white principal, Ron Nelson, and launched the IB program.

Family and students close to Parker said he began receiving pressure to switch to the corps style of marching, but Parker held onto traditional style until his retirement in 1990.

The summer after Parker retired, the school’s administration held a meeting to introduce the band to the new director, Donald Langland.

Alishia Woodard McDonald, who was then student body president and captain of the color guard, remembers big eyes and open mouths as Langland passed around sheet music. The band would be going in a new direction.

That fall, Gainesville packed in for the first performance of the band under Langland, anxious to see what it would look like.

Samuel remembers shocked silence and some tears among alumni and students in the stands, many of them white. This is not our band, they said.

High knees and swinging elbows were replaced with gliding steps and stiff control. R&B and funk were swapped for “Phantom of the Opera.” Nobody danced.

“They just kind of sat there with their mouths open,” McDonald said, “like ‘what just happened?’ Like, ‘Where’s the band?”

Jill Dumas, Class of ’95, holds up her Eastside majorette uniform. Dumas was one of the first students under the new director, and says Parker’s influence still lingered. (Photo by Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

The Eastside community no longer saw joy as they expressed it. McDonald said they were almost booed off the field.

Almost two-thirds of the band quit after that performance, alumni estimate.

“You took our high school from us,” Young said, reflecting on this moment. “Now you have taken our band from us. What next?”

Two groups integrated to form Eastside High, but Black students paid a high price.

One band, one sound

Nearly a decade later, Larry Rentz, a Florida A&M graduate, was hired to direct Eastside’s marching band. He wanted to bring back the traditional style.

“It just seemed to fit Eastside better,” Rentz said. “The band kind of belonged to the community.”

Rentz’s strategy worked. The 2000 yearbook said the band was “regaining respect from the other band programs in Gainesville.”

Drum major Mike Crawford told Eastside’s yearbook staff, “I loved the privilege of being one of those high-stepping drum majors, like Florida A&M.”

Rentz and Alvin Johnson Jr., another Florida A&M graduate who would become the director in 2005, both consulted with Parker as they developed the band.

Eastside band alumnus Rohn Moody, Class of ’86, in costume for the 2002 movie “Drumline.” Several years later, the movie’s tag line, “One band, one sound,” would inspire Alvin Johnson Jr., then Eastside’s band director, to try to merge the concert and marching bands. (Photo courtesy of Rohn Moody)

Like Parker, Johnson actively recruited Black students, even the ones who didn’t seem interested. He’d ask them the same questions Parker had. What are you doing with your life? Why not band?

The concert band and marching band had grown completely separate since Parker’s retirement. The concert band was primarily non-Black and IB students. The marching band was primarily Black and major program students. Johnson wanted to change that.

The movie “Drumline” had come out — featuring a Parker band alumnus, Rohn Moody — with its tagline: “One band, one sound.” Johnson believed they’d be stronger together. He decided if a student wanted to be in band, they would have to participate in both concert and marching band.

But Johnson said there were IB students who did not want to participate in marching band, with parents who backed them.

At the close of spring 2007, he said, the administration chose to not renew his contract, saying they wanted someone with more experience who could teach corps style.

Johnson had played corps style in high school, and after leaving Eastside would teach corps style at Williston Middle High School. Eastside hired a new director to teach corps style, and the band has retained corps style since.

In the following years, the marching band dwindled until it almost disappeared entirely.

The current director, Joseph Hughes, was hired in 2009. Hughes grew the marching band back again, but it looks different than it once did. Very few students who play instruments in the current marching band are Black. Yewon Lee, drum major in 2018, said the band was also mostly IB students.

The band no longer reflects the school, or the neighborhoods that surround it.

The long game

The school district’s chief of equity, inclusion and community engagement, Anntwanique Edwards, acknowledged the shift in the demographics of the band and its cultural representation of the community. She said changing it is a long game, and requires getting students interested in band at an early age and helping them access it.

Edwards said it’s a hard balance between academics and the benefits of extracurricular activities like band. The school district wants students to graduate, and that requires increasing their scores on standardized tests.

The remedial work state-mandated to students who score too low on standardized tests — which critics point out have racist origins and research shows are biased against students of color — can eat into time that would go toward an activity like band.

Transportation also presents an obstacle. Though an activity bus exists to take students home from band practice, Edwards said it drops off at 13 “cluster sites” that may be farther than the student’s usual bus stop.

Band is expensive, too, between instruments and uniforms and fees. According to a school district spokesperson, the band’s booster organization provides scholarships to help ease these costs, as well as fundraising opportunities.

The obstacles existed in Parker’s day as well, and the community found a way around them. Many alumni said they kept their grades up just to stay in Parker’s band. Parker took students who had never been exposed to music before high school, put instruments in their hands, and taught them to play.

The students did everything they could to be in band because it offered something rarely discussed in legislative or school board meetings — fun.

Current community discussions around the rise in juvenile violence have centered on the lack of afterschool programs that could occupy students the way Parker’s band did.

Young said if he hadn’t been in the band, “I would have been on drugs, or been incarcerated, probably been dead, because of the pain that I was going through during integration, the pain that I went through when they took our school.

“A lot of people couldn’t handle it. But when I met Mr. Parker, that changed my whole direction of life.”

Alonzo Young plays “God Has Not Forsaken You” on Jan. 27, 2022. He turned the music Richard Parker taught him into a lifelong ministry. (Photo by Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Young became a supervising chaplain for the Florida Department of Corrections. After Hurricane Katrina, he became chaplain at a Louisiana mental health facility. Music was his ministry, and he brought its joy inside prison and hospital walls.

“I didn’t bring no tradition, that type of thing,” Young said. “Like the old hymns, dragging, putting people to sleep.”

Young brought the hits, just like Parker did.

Young is one of many alumni who said Parker steered them away from prison, to college and careers of service instead.

Parker’s draw was so strong, it would bring them back together half a century later.

One more time

In 2016, Cathy Norman visited Parker at his house. She asked him to play Eastside’s alma mater for her.

Parker played it, and then again and again, until he got it perfect.

“One more time,” he joked.

Norman had started fighting to preserve Parker’s legacy, something she describes as a calling from God.

Parker died that year, before he could see the result of her efforts. Norman got the street leading up to Eastside High named after him: Richard E. Parker Way.

Alonzo Young plays to the memory of Richard Parker. Norman commissioned the portrait to hang in Eastside’s band room. (Photo courtesy of Alonzo Young)

At the dedication ceremony in 2017, dozens of Parker band alumni reassembled, some flying in from other states, many dusting their instruments off for the first time in decades, and played in his honor.

Norman later managed to get the band room renamed after him too, and commissioned a portrait of Parker to hang inside.

The alumni band’s visible joy left a mark on Yewon Lee.

“Whenever I see them,” Lee said, “I realize that, man, our band is not having enough fun.”

Alumni band founder Cathy Norman, Class of ’83. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Norman)

Lee, who loved her time in Eastside’s band, thinks it would have been interesting to try something new and integrate some elements of Parker’s band.

Several alumni said they would like to help students bring back aspects of the old style of marching, but they said administrators have not taken them up on their offer. The principal did not give a response to that concern, but said in an email that they have regularly invited the alumni band to play at the school, sometimes alongside the current band.

They didn’t just perform at the school. In the years following the dedication ceremony, the community that missed them kept inviting the band to play. They reappeared in the University of Florida’s homecoming parade. They performed at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church and marched through Village Green Apartments and the streets of Sugar Hill neighborhood. People stepped out of their homes to listen.

There it was again, that distinct expression of joy.

They marched down Northeast Eighth Avenue and right up to Mildred Parker’s house.

And this Black History Month, they marched into the auditorium of the school where it all began.

Cathy Norman embraces Mildred Parker at the street dedication ceremony in 2017, the year after Richard Parker died. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Norman)

‘Through their resilience’

The drumline’s beat starts spare, RA-ta-ta-RA-ta-ta-RA,  building anticipation as the rest of the band marches in.

When the drummers start layering the beat, the students erupt into cheers, clapping and hollering over the thunder of the drums.

The band is in position now, majorette baton twirling, orange and green flags swirling.

After “Rags to Rufus,” it’s time for “Ram Jam,” just the way Parker wrote it. Young blares all the pride and excellence of their history into his trumpet.

The drumline breaks it down. Students drum their hands on their laps and dance half out of their seats. Every change in the rhythm is met with roars of support.

When Samuel’s whistle ends, it’s drowned out by cheers.

A student takes the podium, leaning into the mic to be heard over the crowd.

“Did you know that our alumni band has past students who have graduated from this school, Eastside High School?” he asks.

“Through their resilience, they are still performing to this day. Together as one band, one sound.”

The alumni band gathers outside the Eastside auditorium for the school’s Black History Month celebration on Feb. 25, 2022. The alumni span more than two decades of graduating classes. (Photo by Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

The band marches past the applause of filled seats and into the sunlight.

For a moment, it is 1970 again and Young is back on the football field, in full regalia, ready to march.

Katie Hyson is a Report for America corps member at WUFT News in Gainesville, Florida.